Saturday, July 19, 2008


A typical of Gondang Batak instruments. The musicians, locally called pargonsi, seen here, are wearing the traditional Parmalim costum. Parmalim is the original Batak religion.

Gondang Batak Performs in The Maison des Cultures du Monde festival, 1995

By: Arthur Simon

The larger, official gondang music accompanies ceremonial dances called tortor adat during adat festivities such as the ancestor ceremony, ulaon 'panongkokhon saring-saring', or mangongkal holi, the reburial of remains of ancestors, as well as commemorations for the dead.

However, another type of gondang music, such as gondang riang-riang, or "happy gondang", is used for entertainment or general pleasure during harvest festivals, as accompaniment for dances for young people (gondang naposo), to celebrate the anniversary of the building of a church, or on other public occasions.

Another category of gondang, the gondang arsak, or "sad gondang", may be played at mourning ceremonies for a young man who has died without heirs, or for persons in a melancholic or sentimental mood.

In the past, gondang mandudu were used to call up the spirits of ancestors during dances of spirit possession. Certain other compositions were rituals in the veneration of the ancient Batak gods, such as "gondang Mulajadi na Bolon", "Bane Bulan" (band 3) or "Debata Sori" (band 7). Concerning this latter piece, it should be noted that due to the influence of Christianity, Debata" today means the God of the Christians.

From an architectural point of view, a traditional Toba house reproduces the ancient Batak religious system, according to which the universe is divided into three worlds: the under, middle and upper worlds. During an adat celebration, the gondang musicians occupy the upper level of the house, thus the upper world, and they play the music towards the dancers representing the middle world. The gondang is thus the mediator between the upper and middle worlds, granted by God and sanctified with divine force, and this explains the social prestige of the pargonsi (gondang musicians).

The order of the pieces and dances in gondang is subjected to a specific internal cyclical order. When the adat is strictly observed, each cycle must be composed of seven pieces, the first "gondang mula-mula" and the last of which "gondang hasahatan" are compulsory. If the suite is being performed as entertainment, this order need not be followed.

Festival music is always played by the official gondang. This instrumental group, called gondang sarune, gondang bolon (large gondang) or gondang sabangunan (complete gondang), is made up of the taganing, composed of a set of five tuned drums (tataganing) beaten by a first drummer, a large bass drum called gordang played by a second drummer, a sarune (oboe), four ogung (gongs) and a hesek-hesek (metal plate). A second sarune may be added to the first to strengthen the sound. In addition, in pieces intended for divine worship, certain groups replace the taganing with a small double-headed barrel-drum called odap.

The sarune or sarune bolon (large sarune) is a conical oboe with five upper finger-holes and one lower finger-hole for the thumb. The instrument consists of five interlocking parts: a double reed, a mouth-piece, a disk upon which the musician places his lips (pirouette), a body section and a bell.

From the players' point of view, the taganing drums (measuring 16 to 20 inches) are placed in increasing order from left to right ; all hang on a wooden stand.

The head is of water buffalo, cow or goat skin, and connected to a round wooden plate held in place underneath the drum by means of six tension strings. The desired tuning of each head is achieved by driving in wooden wedges between the base of the drum and this plate. The bass drum gordang is of similar construction, only much bigger, as it measures more that 40 inches in length. These drums are struck by using two drumsticks.

The set of gongs ogung consists of four bossed gongs of varying size and pitch, each of which is struck by one individual player. The oloan ("who must be obeyed"), the lowest gong, and the ihutan ("to follow") or pangalusi ("the answerer") are not muted. The doal na godang ("doal of the parents") and the panggora ("the caller"), of higher pitch, are muted with the arm.

The hesek-hesek, a plate of iron or other metal, or even an empty beer bottle, is beaten regularly as a timekeeper.

In the majority of the pieces, there is an audible opposition between the melodic combination provided by the sarune / taganing group, and the background gong accompaniment, whose psychoacoustic effects may be heard for several miles, and which remains the same throughout the piece.

The sarune's range of notes is roughly: G-, C1, D1, E1, F1, G1, A flat/ A-, played half a note lower. The intonation of individual notes may fluctuate considerably, especially the highest note, which is pressed and used in some particular moments as an intensificatory process. The melodic and thematic units of the gondang repertoire are dependent on the technical possibilities of the sarune playing. The six degrees of the basic range are obtained by playing the five upper finger-holes, and most of the thematic figures use this scale.

Almost all the pieces begin with a kind of standard introduction. The taganing player begins with a characteristic figure, followed by steady beats, from which the other players can take up the tempo, after which the gong section can begin to play.

The main theme as such does not begin until after this introduction. Two main types of themes may be distinguished. First, those with quite distinctive and expressive melodies, subject to a strict symmetric internal structure maintained throughout the entire piece (type 1). Next, themes which employ a technique of increasing tension by the successive transposition of a phrase on the central tones D1 - E1 - F1 - G1 (type 2). The internal structure is almost always asymmetric in this case, and the length of themes can vary due to the amount of freedom allowed in lengthening, determined by the emotional context.

The group consists of:

Marsius Sitohang (left), 40 years old, from Samosir / Medan: sulim (transverse flute) Photo: Repro Tonggo Simangunsong

Kalabius Simbolon, 51 years old, from Samosir / Pematang Siantar: first sarune etek(clarinet)
Osner Gultom, 40 years old, from Porsea: second sarune etek
Sarikawan Sitohang, 35 years old, from Medan, hasapi garantung (first lute)
Janter Sagala, 44 years old, from Samosir / Medan: hasapi doal (second lute)
Maningar Sitorus, 33 years old, from Porsea: garantung (xylophone)
Rizaldi Siagian, 43 years old, from Medan: hesek-hesek (iron plate).

The two brothers, Marsius and Sarikawan Sitohang, as well as Janter Sagala, usually play in their own group "Sitohang Bersaudara," in Medan, and Kalabius Simbolon has his own group in Pematang Siantar. These musicians have inherited the tradition begun by Tilhang Gultom, who pioneered the "Batak Opera" (a form of popular theatre set to music).

Sitohang Bersaudara (L-R): Marsius Sitohang, Jonter Sagala and Sarikawan Sitohang (Photo Benhard Sitohang)

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